The Marketplace in the Loop sure does clean up well, and the new Racanelli’s Cucina is proof. The once-grungy compilation of fast eateries, a fish market and bead store has been transformed into a spacious Italian restaurant by John Racanelli, who operated the carryout Racanelli’s Pizza from that building for probably 20 years.
The interior is minimalist: gray walls, unadorned windows, booths around the perimeter and tables down the center. A big open kitchen in the back gives diners a full view of what’s going on, and a separate bar area on the side has five big-screen TVs and some high bar tables. A small walk-up space with its own entrance serves up pies to go, and pizza is still a big part of the restaurant menu.
Besides pizza, can get a broad range of traditional Italian dishes, from calamari and bruschetta to chicken parmesan and lasagna. Prices are moderate, and Racanelli avoids premium meats like steak and veal. An extensive pizza selection includes old Racanelli’s standards and many creative new ones, all with his excellent crust and, in my opinion, just the right amount of cheese and sauce.
We started with an appetizer sampler ($14): fried calamari, crab-stuffed mushrooms and bruschetta. The calamari was delicious, with thick-cut tender ringlets lightly breaded and crisped. The mushrooms also were good, big buttons stuffed with a mix of crab and cream cheese and topped with a little mound of buttered seasoned breadcrumbs. The bruschetta was less successful, as it was served on too-thin bread that was barely toasted (if at all), resulting in a soggy and hard to eat dish. The bread was over-piled with diced tomatoes and a large dollop of unnecessary aioli, but its thin layer of pesto was good.
A Caesar salad ($4) had crisp Romaine in bite-size pieces and a creamy dressing with plenty of grated Parmesan. But it was a little over-dressed and under-seasoned for my palate, some garlic and anchovies would have helped.
The menu has some standard pastas, with meatballs, puttanesca, Romana (chicken and cream sauce), Alfredo and clam sauce, all under $14 for a generous portion, and a few entrees. Our table sampled the chicken Parmesan ($15), shrimp scampi ($16), spaghetti with clam sauce ($14) and pizza Calabrese ($11).
The chicken was delicious: two jumbo breasts, pounded thin and coated in egg batter with a tasty crumb topping that was pan-fried to a crisp, flavorful finish. It was topped with just the right amount of chunky tomato sauce and melted mozzarella. As if that weren’t creamy enough, the dish also came with a hefty serving of fettuccine Alfredo, and a hunk of Italian bread, oiled and grilled, a really nice touch.
The spaghetti with clams was good, with a dozen fresh shell-on clams dotting a platter of pasta, garlic, parsley and white wine sauce. The shrimp scampi also was good, although the shrimp were small and only lightly breaded and grilled. They came on a large mound of pasta, linguine with chopped tomatoes and parsley in a very light cream sauce.
About 15 pizzas are offered, each with a rustic, crisp crust that’s on the thin side. The house-made tomato sauce is excellent, and the cheeses rich and obviously high-grade. Our Calabrese pie had fried eggplant slices, bits of garlic, chopped tomatoes and fresh shredded basil, and was delicious. The crust was chewy without being doughy, and the balance of tomato sauce, cheese and veggies was perfect.
Desserts are house-made, and the short list includes brownie à la mode, tiramisu and special house pound cake. The brownie was just OK, a thick, cakey variety topped with vanilla ice cream and Hershey’s-like sauce. But the pound cake was memorable, more of a pound cake sandwich constructed of two thin slices of cake, one side spread with strawberry jam, the other with Nutella, then grilled. Sounds strange, but it works.
It is so easy for a restaurant to fall into the trap of over-doing certain ingredients, if a little (garlic, cheese, basil, sausage) is good, a lot is not better. But Racanelli’s has avoided that trap in most of the dishes I sampled. The food is solid and good overall, not to mention filling and inexpensive. If anyone deserves to succeed in the reincarnation of a Loop landmark, it’s Racanelli, a longtime and popular vendor.